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Germans Battle Floods With Sandbags, Facebook, and Twitter


Flooding in the old Bavarian town of Passau, Germany, on June 5

Photograph by Armin Weigel/EPA

Flooding in the old Bavarian town of Passau, Germany, on June 5

The devastating floods sweeping across Germany this week have produced a surge of activity on social-networking sites as stricken communities turn to Facebook (FB) and Twitter to offer help and share vital information.

“We have accommodations for one or two cats and one dog. Our guest apartment for four to six persons is also free,” reads a post today on the Facebook page of Hochwasser [Flood] Sachsen-Anhalt The page has logged more than 105,000 followers over the past 10 days as floodwaters have risen in the state of Saxony-Anhalt in eastern Germany.

With tens of thousands of residents forced to flee their homes, “social media and radio are the best way to reach people,” says Patrick Herger, who runs an online-marketing agency in Leipzig. He is coordinating the Saxony-Anhalt page pro bono, as well as a second page devoted to flooding in the neighboring state of Saxony that has logged an additional 33,000 followers.

Government officials are using social media to post updates on flooding conditions and ask for help. “Grimma Mayor Matthias Berger has just asked us to post this request,” read one such post on the Saxony-Anhalt Facebook page today. “We need drinking water for the volunteers urgently. Please bring it to the tent at the market in Grimma.”

After the Bavarian city of Passau was inundated last week, University of Passau students set up a Facebook page called Passau Räumt Auf (Passau Cleans Up) to help mobilize recovery efforts. Local residents now are using the page to thank the volunteers and post photos of mud-drenched work crews.

In the U.S., Facebook and Twitter also are being used to aid survivors of last month’s deadly tornadoes in Oklahoma. But while the tornadoes were over within minutes, German floodwaters have been rising for weeks, creating a sense of real-time urgency as the situation unfolds.

Under the Twitter hashtag #Hochwasser, Tweets today range from transportation alerts (“Hannover to Berlin rail route closed”) to outbursts of frustration (“Where is the international help when Germany needs it? Why do we always help others but don’t get help when we need it!”)

The German magazine Spiegel says social media have been essential to help residents cope with the floods, because official warning systems proved inadequate.

A big risk, though, is that false rumors can easily spread online and create panic. Some Facebook page administrators such as Hergert say they try to verify potentially alarming information before posting it. Spiegel quotes a spokesman for the Dresden city government as saying that some of the worst chaos from the floods has come not “from residents or masses of water, but from the nonsense being propagated” online.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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